I Trimmed My Beard, Not My Faith: A Letter To A Concerned Former Student
Since my last post, I have received quite a few messages of concern about deciding to trim my beard.
Although I appreciate the words of support from friends and readers, I also received heart wrenching emails and notes of worry that give me pause.
One of them is a 2,600-word, six-page letter that is so personal I find it painful to read. The writer does not know me beyond these pages. I value the letter, but it is has been difficult to respond. In fact, until now, I have yet to address it. Many of his points are valid, his care for me – Yid to Yid – apparent in the openness and consideration. But he makes generalized assumptions about different kinds of Yidden that I feel are not the point I tried to make in the piece: the kind of beard I wear or don’t wear does not determine my relationship with Hashem or Yiddishkeit.
In any case, I do feel I owe him a response. And if I feel that way about him, I feel even stronger about some of the other emails I got.
Because some of them are from former students.
One particular student sent me an 800 word email that rips my heart out. The letter is terrifically honest without an ounce of negative judgment. Just the opposite. After writing about the influence I’ve had on her as a teacher as well as afterward through my writing and Facebook posts (she refers to me as a warrior Chassid!), she writes of how pained she was to see a recent post of me with my trimmed beard and then, soon after, to read “The Beard Chronicles.”
She then posits questions so to the heart of her concerns that I feel obligated to answer her. Below is much of what I wrote to her.
I have never been more humbled.
Neither have I ever been more honored.
Your letter has affected me deeply. I’ve read it over and over again.
I ask myself: I had such a part in this amazing person’s life? I have had this influence on this person who influenced me? As my student, you were one of those who taught me how to pay attention to the one’s paying attention. An easy thing to forget.
And here you go again, paying attention.
And here you go again, asking questions.
The insatiable learner.
I’m so fortunate to have participated in the development of that part of you. Thank you for giving me such a clear impression in your letter of the kind and open eyed young woman that has grown from the student to the teacher.
Your sentiments and concerns did not come across as judgmental at all.
Although I feel conflicted about the pain the picture and my essay caused you — because as you say it has a lot to do with your projected image of me — I can’t escape feeling a true sense of responsibility, as the image of me you have is not just your imagination, but rather how I have presented myself in life and in my writing.
So I’m going to try and answer each of your questions as clearly as I possibly can.
1. Is this change indicative of a shift in your identity as a Chassid?
Yes and no.
As I said in the piece, when it comes to the beard, I grew it for various reasons. Halachic and kabbalistic. I learned about it and thought, I could do that. And I did.
At the same time, I knew of such holy Jews who trimmed, or even shaved completely.
And the longer the beard grew, the less physically comfortable. I could never get used to it.
It made me nervous. The beard had become a real part of my identity to my family, friends, coworkers, and students. The beard had become a real part of my identity as a Chassid. Which I started to think was weird.
Because despite the kabbalistic understandings of the beard, I knew that I would think and act the same with or without the long beard. I didn’t need the long beard to have awe for life and the world around me. I didn’t need the long beard to love Hashem.
Did I need a beard at all? When I looked more into the halacha of the beard, the various opinions, interpretations, customs, and so on, I realized that the question of a beard is one more way that Jews from every perspective can still be frum, can still serve Hashem with everything they have.
I can still be a warrior Chassid with a trimmed beard. I believe that is true for those who don’t grow a beard as well. But that’s not the kind of Jew I am. I have been, I am, and I will remain a bearded Jew because at least that much is still part of my spiritual self manifested in the physical on my very being, on my countenance, and so forth.
So where am I going with this? My identity as a Chassid.
I’ve read about what kabbala has to say about the beard. I’ve learned what halacha says about the beard.
And so I am not convinced that I must have a long beard to consider myself a Chassid.
I love Chassidus. What it does to my eyesight. What it does to my heartsight.
My favorite Ma’amar is Mayim Rabim. It is one of the most powerful inspirations in my life. Levi Robin sings about it in a song so beautifully. It is one of the very strongest pieces of Chassidus or Yiddishkeit in general that has ever grabbed me and become part of me. It gives me hope and strength. It confirms and fortifies my every belief in staying true to who I am as a struggler, a fighter who will not quit trying to be what Hashem wants of me.
I also try to learn Tanya every day. I must. I know my neshama benefits even when I don’t get it, which is often.
I daven Nusach Ari. That’s how I learned to pray to Hashem.
I also try to pray to Hashem with my own words as I did as an innocent child, aloud, expressing to Him under the trees in my backyard my requests for blessings, my apologies, my acknowledgment of broken promises and constant failures, my gratitude for His mercy in granting me every blessing I am granted in the form of the love from and for my wife and children and in the abundant gifts of work and passion and physical and mental health.
Still, there are other Chabad minhagim that we’ve decided not to keep. I went to a rabbi I have a lot of respect for and shmoozed. I went before a bet din.
I want our frumkite to be alive in everything we do and I want to enjoy it maximally. Being a frum Yid can be hard, but I never want to express that to my family or to myself ever again. Because the struggle is the thing of life. I truly believe that. That is the beauty.
So all that we’ve gone through has formulated certain understandings, one of which is that a beard does not make a Chassid. A Chassid makes the beard. A Chassid with a trim beard or without a beard is still a Chassid if everything he’s doing he’s doing to love Hashem stronger and to learn the path of Chassidus in every aspect of yiddishkeit and life as it’s lived daily.
And this too, you should know: I love the Rebbe.
I’m staring at a picture of him right now. It’s the black and white photo of him saying the Shema.
When I say Shema, I meditate on the concept of ein od milvado (there is nothing but Hashem), a concept I first surmised through Bob Marley’s “One Love” and then refined in learning some Chassidus in Aryeh Kaplan’s books and in Chabad Chassidus. Really not kidding. And so I stare at the Rebbe as I write you and Bob Marley gets an honorable mention, as does a brilliant Breslover. This is part of my make-up. This is part of my Jewish DNA.
I think trimming my beard has made me feel stronger in determining what kind of Chassid I’m going to be compared to the Chassid I was yesterday instead of compared to the Chassidim or Yidden around me.
2. Does the ‘warrior Chassid’ identity not speak to you at all anymore?
Yes, it definitely does.
I wear a black kippa or a big colorful knit kippa and fly my tzitzit and work in my self, in my home, and wherever I find myself to find ways to bring Moshiach – doing mitzvahas, striving to be a mentsch, being a teacher that will create learners who are inspired to be their best because I’m inspired to be my best by Yiddishkeit and Chassidus and their faces and life everywhere as I experience it.
I believe wholeheartedly in the concepts of a yetzer hara and a yetzer tov, of the nefesh behaima and the nefesh elokis. Those are part of reality as I live it. And so much more.
I know I have work to do. I’m a struggler. A fighter. I strive to do what’s right, to know I know nothing but to impart whatever it is I know through my thoughts, speech, and actions in a way of a Chassidishe mentsch, mamesh for real.
The Rebbe once said something like, “Anyone who wakes up trying to be a better person than yesterday is a Chassid of mine.”
I still consider myself a Chassid of the Rebbe under that general description.
I wonder: Did the Rebbe want shluchim to go out and make more Lubavitchers or to bring Yidden to mitzvot and to love Hashem?
The answer is obvious. And although I thought once I’d be the first, I know that at least now I’m well beyond the second.
As someone said to me, “Wherever you are, as long as you’re progressing in your relationship to Yiddishkeit and Hashem, that’s what’s important. Hair grows back.”
The shift away from Chabad is weird. Because although I trimmed my beard and we don’t do all that Chabad Chassidim do anymore, I still learn Chabad Chassidus and it is still important to me. I still believe learning Chabad Chassidus will continue to strengthen my relationship to Hashem and make me a better Yid. Most Chabadniks disappointed with their community find another Chabad community to move to. If we didn’t find this community (frum, but not Chabad), that may have happened.
But I also believe 100% in hashgacha pratis. Everything is divine providence. Sometimes we’re blessed to see it. And certain things have happened lately that to us were revealed divine providence in our move here.
Before we moved, I spoke to a another Yid who was formerly Chabad. I asked him, “Does moving out of Chabad community to a non-Chabad community necessarily mean I am moving out of Chabad?”
His answer, succinctly: “Most likely, yes.”
In some ways, as I’ve described above, he was certainly correct. In other ways, perhaps not.
But then again, we’ve only lived here for two months.
I’ll be starting my 14th year of teaching this fall. It took a good couple of years for me to realize that what I do has a real and lasting impact on my students.
I had no idea when I started writing more and publicly publishing a couple of years ago and then for Hevria a year ago that my writing could have such an impact to cause readers to write me personal notes and letters.
I’m pretty blown away at the messages I’ve received, especially from the last two pieces I’ve written.
I have to learn from this. “The Beard Chronicles” obviously left holes, questions (that you asked) that should have been answered. But the narrative and poetic nature of my approach glossed over the depth, I think, of what you’ve asked me and how I’ve now tried to answer.
Feel free to keep this conversation going, as I believe every day, every moment, every experience is a learning one. So shall this be.